Explainers

Inside the house of tomorrow: Smart home explained

The future is now

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Ten years ago, smart homes belonged to the realm of science fiction. Back then, you would only see connected smart devices in TV shows like Black Mirror, rather than in cons and tradeshows.

Today, a connected household isn’t just a working theory; it’s already a reality pushed by the world’s leading tech brands. Common, everyday tasks can now be automated by artificial intelligence or simplified through voice commands.

We are living in a world where every device has a voice, whether it’s Alexa, Siri, Cortana, or the Google Assistant. While some anticipate the curiosities that the future will bring, some fear the rapid changes that a house from the future beckons.

Regardless of how you might feel about the future of futuristic abodes, living in one can still be a mystery, especially for the everyday homeowner. There are layers of tech to wade through. As with every house hunt, it’s time to take a tour of the house of tomorrow before you inevitably live in one.

Garage: letting the right one in

As you pull up into the driveway with your electric car, the garage door automatically opens to the sound of your voice. The lights go on to help you park. You climb out of the car and hook it up to the charging station on the wall.

As you head to the front door, the garage door closes behind you. The smart camera above the door detects who you are and notifies your family that you’ve arrived. The locks disengage, and you enter.

The most common elements of a smart home are those seen from the outside. If you live within a gated community, you’ve seen automatic gates open and close by themselves. You might’ve also seen electric vehicles roaming the streets already. They may be outside the house, but these machines have become essential to the smart home ecosystem. They’ve become extensions of your smart house that you can take with you wherever.

Even as you exit your garage, other smart devices are being fitted around your house. The Nest Cam IQ, for example, is a smart security camera that adds an extra oomph in security. It can record in HD, listen in on conversations, and detect familiar faces.

Having an integrated smart security system allows you to enter and exit your home without fussing with keychains and padlocks.

Living room: command center

Entering your house, you kiss your spouse hello, kick off your shoes, and watch a bit of TV before dinner. Just as you plop down onto your couch, you remember that your house security is still disabled. You ask Alexa to turn it on. You rest easy while watching the latest House of Cards episode.

The evolution of the smart home began in earnest with the living room. As it was the central hub of the entire house, the living room also became the center for the Internet of Things. The new smart home ecosystem coordinated everything from the lights to the TV to the security system — right from the comforts of your sofa.

Who hasn’t heard of a smart TV? The industry’s newest TVs integrate the internet to build a more comprehensive entertainment experience. From a device that connects to mere broadcast stations, the TV evolved to access a vast catalog of online entertainment. You could watch Netflix while searching for your favorite recipes on Google. The smart TV became the desktop of your living room.

As people spent more time interacting with their TVs, smart devices started installing themselves around the luxuries of the living room. While you’re watching a movie, you can change everything from the temperature to the lights without standing up or pausing the programming.

The Philips Hue, for example, takes control of your house’s lighting system. That’s not all. The smart bulb automates your lights’ operation for both when you’re in and out of the house. It can even change a room’s hue to set the mood.

Another example is the Ecobee 3 smart thermostat. The automated system optimizes the temperature based on your activity inside and on the temperature outside. Further, it also makes your energy usage more efficient.

Kitchen: robots get hungry, too

As you open your fridge, a voice lists down the food you have in stock. Knowing how much pasta and olive oil you have left, the voice assistant suggests pesto for dinner. You agree. Alexa, then, preheats the oven for the pasta and preps your dishwasher for the oily dishes later.

Despite the oodles of devices inside a kitchen, tech makers are only starting to optimize the room for the smart home. LG, for example, launched a series of devices that assist you even before you start preparing the dish.

Their smart refrigerator catalogs the supplies you have left. It alerts you when you’re short of ingredients and recommends recipes based on what’s inside. Plus, it even has its own entertainment system to get your groove on while you cook.

After you gather all the ingredients, the system passes the recipe down to the appliances you’ll need. A smart oven preheats to fit the temperature you need; a smart dishwasher customizes its spin cycles to wash dishes optimally.

Bedroom: the last frontier

The day is over. Before you drift off to sleep, you remember to charge your devices — iPhone X, Apple Watch — on the wireless charging stand. You set Google Home to wake you up at 7am by playing a Rihanna song.

The bedroom is the last frontier of the home of tomorrow. The bed is the last sanctuary from a life taken over by tech. That, however, won’t last. As early as now, the Internet of Things follows you even to the bedroom.

Wireless charging stations, smart thermostat panels, and security panels pervade our bedrooms, allowing us easy access to how our house works before we call it a night. A smart bed is still forthcoming, but technology is already reaching out before it inevitably comes.

With Google Home and Amazon Echo, voice assistants now lull us to sleep and wake us up in the morning. Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, and Cortana will become the first and last voices we hear every day. The eerily human voice assistants have already lent their voices to every device in our home.

It’s only a matter of time before our house becomes a machine itself. Whether you embrace the future or shun it, technology will always find a way to make our lives easier. But don’t worry when it comes. All you’ll hear is the soothing voice of Alexa, asking how you want your meat cooked.

Illustrations by MJ Jucutan

Apps

How Google alerted the Philippines during the July earthquake

Crowd-sourcing data

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Illustrations by Kris Blanco

Back in July, an earthquake rocked Metro Manila. Unbeknownst to most but noticed by some, a globally renowned company was helping everyone through the natural incident: Google. In the few minutes leading up to and during the 6.7 magnitude earthquake, Android users received important alerts warning them of the ongoing tremors. Though it wasn’t the dreaded Big One, the alert afforded attentive users a few precious seconds to either seek appropriate cover or stop doing dangerous tasks.

Incidentally, the tech surrounding Google’s earthquake alert system wasn’t just hastily built on ongoing databases or social media. Google actually packed in a fully responsive earthquake sensor for Android phones.

Faster than an earthquake

The forever-increasing speed of technology has always been a contentious element since the rise of smartphones. Developers and users alike have wondered how accurate or quick our favorite devices can warn us of things happening around us. There’s even an XKCD comic about how Twitter can warn us of an earthquake minutes before it reaches the reader.

Over the years, technology has developed new ways to deliver alerts. From simple weather apps to city-wide messaging systems, users can receive warnings in a timely fashion. Practically nothing is a surprise anymore with the right technology.

That said, Google has successfully developed a new system that can rely on other Android smartphones to accurately tell whether or not an earthquake is happening.

A quake detector in your pocket

Speaking to Android Police, the feature’s lead engineer Marc Stogaitis described how Google’s earthquake sensor leveraged other devices to tell users about the quake. It all revolves around the different sensors built inside your phone.

As it is, every smartphone comes with a host of sensors to support its different functions. A light detector can seamlessly adjust brightness and camera settings, and a gyroscope can support compasses, for example. With earthquakes, the biggest element to ponder on is a smartphone’s movement and vibrations during an earthquake.

According to the lead engineer, figuring out the metrics for detecting an earthquake wasn’t a problem. After decades of accurate seismograph technology, developers already have an idea on what they need to measure.

However, the technology does not stop there. Naturally, there are hiccups to relying on just a single (or even every) phone’s data. For one, a city-wide messaging system can set off everyone’s phone in a single area, potentially causing false positives. Plus, relying on a single phone is definitely tricky. There are multiple actions which can cause vibrations akin to an earthquake.

Crowdsourcing a quake

The feature doesn’t rely on just one phone. It doesn’t tap into every Android phone in an area either. Instead, it collates data from phones plugged into a charger. Naturally, a plugged-in phone is the most reliable barometer in terms of battery reliability. They won’t die out in the middle of an earthquake and ruin a source of data. Additionally, charging phones are often stationary. They won’t be affected by motions that mimic earthquakes.

Google “listens” to charging devices in an area. If the subset meets the criteria for an earthquake, the company quickly determines the earthquake’s epicenter (based on approximate location) and magnitude. Once the system declares that a quake is indeed happening, it sends out an alert to nearby devices and gives them the time needed to seek shelter.

The alerts naturally prioritize people nearer to the epicenter. But, of course, the speed will ultimately depend on the phone’s connectivity. A phone hooked up to a building’s fast Wi-Fi connection will receive alerts faster than a commuter’s phone on data while going through a tunnel.

Still, the short time that the alerts give users is enough to save themselves from a precarious situation. Though the feature can potentially warn users of quakes minutes in advance, Stogaitis says that it will more realistically push alerts five to ten seconds before the incident. However, five seconds is enough to go under a table and have some sort of protection against falling debris.

Still keeping things private

For anyone worrying about how Google is handling their data, Stogaitis says that the company removes all identifiers from the data except for approximate location. And, despite that, Google still maintains that the feature will be the most accurate that it can be. Either way, the feature will be useful for any earthquakes in the future.

The earthquake sensor is available for any Android phone running Lollipop and above. Naturally, the feature still necessitates that users turn on emergency alerts on their phone.

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The industry’s next big thing: Cloud gaming explained

It’s gaming on the go, but for internet that’s not slow

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Everybody’s getting into gaming these days, and you can’t blame them. With the pandemic continuing its ravaging ways in the world, people turn to their consoles or PCs for some action. However, not everyone can afford all the expensive PCs and the next-gen consoles when they come out.

Instead, a new player comes into the fray with a pretty great idea. What would happen if you can just play your favorite games from any device? Also, what if we told you that this won’t take up space on your device at all? This is basically what cloud gaming offers to you: a way to play games from any device at any time!

So, how does that actually work? What do you need to ensure quality gameplay, and should you even consider it?

The basics of playing on a cloud

On paper, it’s pretty easy to understand how cloud gaming works. Basically, you have access to a library of games from a cloud storage service. When you subscribe to the service, you can virtually play your library from any device regardless of the specs. Also, you don’t have to worry about storage problems since these games are stored on a server.

It’s no joke when these companies tell you that you can play your games on any device. With their dedicated data servers, they make sure that the games run smoothly once you access them from the cloud. On your end, you will need a strong and consistent internet connection to play the games smoothly.

Several companies already have cloud gaming software available for people to subscribe to. Some examples include NVIDIA’s GeForce Now, Microsoft’s xCloud, and Google Stadia — all of which store PC games on a server. These companies even take the time to update their server hardware every so often to bring the best possible quality.

System requirements for cloud gaming

Much like your ordinary PC or gaming console, companies that run cloud gaming servers need certain equipment to run smoothly. First, these companies must set up active data centers and server farms that run the games. These data centers ensure that games are up and running, while reducing latency. In other words, these serve as the powerhouse of cloud gaming.

Next on the list is the network infrastructure necessary to send these to the users. To ensure that people don’t experience lags when they play their games, companies also invest in acquiring proper data connections. However, in most cases, this isn’t something these companies have control over; it’s mostly coming from their available internet service providers.

On the front-end, companies also provide dedicated hardware and software to house the cloud. For example, NVIDIA integrated GeForce Now into their own cloud streaming device, the NVIDIA Shield back in 2013. Meanwhile, Google Stadia relies heavily on using pre-existing Google software like Google Chrome and the Stadia App.

Something great to offer, for the most part

Cloud gaming services offer something unique in the industry. Essentially, it eliminates the user from investing so much into buying expensive PCs as it allows people to play from virtually any device. Whether it’s on a smartphone, laptop, or even a smart TV, people get access to games at high frame rates without an RTX 3080.

Furthermore, the game and save files are stored on the cloud, and don’t take up any storage on your devices. This is greatly beneficial for people who are already running on limited storage space, especially if they play Call of Duty: Warzone. With everything stored on the cloud, you don’t need most of the 512GB of SSD storage.

However, one of the biggest issues with cloud gaming revolves around the thing it’s based on: the internet. Specifically, it’s on the user’s internet connection as these services require the fastest internet to run smoothly on any device. Basically, you will need either an Ethernet or a 5G wireless connection to ensure the lowest latency possible.

That infrastructure isn’t readily available in most markets, which is a prominent issue among several third-world countries. Furthermore, even if there are companies that have 5G in their pipeline, these same providers also put data caps on it. Even if the user can play at an optimal frame rate, they’re doing so with a restriction in place.

Does this new player have any place?

With the world continuously opening its arms to the gaming industry, innovation becomes the forefront of success. Companies come up with a variety of gaming technologies that seek to cater to a wide variety of people. From individual hardware to pre-built systems, gaming often revolved around these things.

With cloud gaming, it gives people not just another option within the mix. Rather, it seeks to challenge the notion of availability and accessibility, and give it a viable solution. Essentially, it takes away the physical hardware limitations on the user’s end, and makes it available for everyone.

But like most gaming technologies, everything is still limited somehow. These systems still experience bottlenecks both on the manufacturer and the user’s end. In the end, it will depend on how much you’re willing to shell out for them, and how willing you are to accept the risks.

Illustrations by Raniedel Fajardo

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Your MagSafe Questions Answered

Do you really need it?

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If you’ve ever owned an old MacBook before, you’ll know that those chargers magnetically snap onto place. That particular technology is called the ‘MagSafe’.

After the MacBook Pro touch bar and USB-C overhaul last 2016, everyone thought MagSafe ended for good. Not until they announced the new MagSafe for the iPhone 12 series four years later.

The MagSafe technology might not be new but the implementation for the latest iPhones makes the technology even more usable. Other than the securely-placed phone for wireless charging, there are a plethora of case manufacturers who continuously work on future accessories that support MagSafe existing ecosystem.

But is the Apple MagSafe more than just a gimmick? And do you really need it?

Watch our in-depth Apple MagSafe explainer here.

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